The luckiest kids in America, as far as I can tell, are the ones who have Clare Klee, my mom, as their seventh-grade language arts teacher. Year in and year out, she brings her love of reading and writing — the very passion that made me the author and journalist I am today — into a classroom of students who adore her for it, and who return to visit long after she’s left her mark on their young minds. She has happily taught in the same middle school, in the suburbs of northern New Jersey, for as long as she’s been teaching. She knows the district’s strengths and challenges. She knows the community.
Whenever a school shooting unfolds, my thoughts turn to her — to Ms. Klee and her kids. This violence takes its toll on them all, which is why the conservative proposal to arm teachers, now endorsed by the president, is especially galling: educators and students could scarcely be more united in their opposition to it. In my mom’s case, the idea is downright laughable; she’s 62 years old, has rheumatoid arthritis, and is currently recovering from a broken foot, getting around on crutches or a scooter. I figured she’d have further arguments against being forced to strap up to give lessons on Shakespeare, so I called her up to get her take. Though my dad warned that Second Amendment trolls might come after her, she agreed to share her thoughts.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
So I assume you’ve heard someone, at some point, suggest that teachers should carry guns.
Is it a good idea?
It’s insane. And it’s ludicrous on several levels, for several reasons.
What kind of firearm experience do you have, personally?
None. The teachers I know have none. Nobody I know in the teaching profession has ever had any training with firearms. At all. No teachers want it. The National Education Association has denounced it. It goes completely contrary to the outcry to ban them.
Do you have any security presence at your school?
We have two security guards, who are not armed. They’re retired police officers, and they have no weapons, just walkie talkies. Two security guards for roughly 950 students, and they’re part-time. So god forbid anything happen between the hours of X and X. And if you remember Columbine, they did have armed guards, and one engaged the shooters, but missed. But really, how much training would teachers get? Police officers and law enforcement are trained extensively for those situations. What they’re talking about for teachers is 20 to 40 hours of training, which is nothing.
It’s all about the mindset, too. We went into this profession to be supportive and nurturing. To expect these people to notch it up and become a vigilante and probably shoot a young person—to expect people to make that leap, even with training, it’s impossible. We went into the profession to teach, not defend. If I’d wanted to be a police officer my whole life, it might be different.
How would you feel coming into work every day knowing that some of your coworkers were armed? Would it make the teachers’ lounge kind of tense?
Yeah, it would make the entire school tense, including the kids. It would add a great level of fear for the staff and students, knowing there are loaded guns in classrooms. I don’t know anyone in my school who I’d trust with a gun, no one on staff who was in the military or on a police force.
Not to mention that teachers have been known to get violent or harm students…
There are very unstable teachers! There are teachers who shouldn’t be in the profession at all — you’re going to give them a gun? There was a teacher just charged for assault, she dragged a kid out of class by his shirt for not standing for the pledge of allegiance. Teachers undergoing emotional strain, elderly teachers who should have already retired. We have more than 100 staff in our school, and I wouldn’t trust anyone with a gun, even the security guards.
If guns are accessible to defend, they’re accessible to students. Look at the student in Florida, the shooter in Sandy Hook: Those are people who could grab a gun out of my desk to use it. They don’t even have to get through a metal detector, they just have to know where it is. It adds a whole new level of danger. And it could be a bully, a mentally unstable student — it’s more accessible for them.
Think about this: If you’re making it so educators have to carry firearms, that’s good for the NRA, it’s increasing gun sales. Say it was just 20 percent of teachers — that’s a lot of money! So I don’t believe they’re genuine about “protecting and defending.”
You already do substantial training and drills for active shooter situations, right?
We’ve had many conversations, ongoing since Sandy Hook. We have lockdowns twice a month. It’s become very routine. The kids don’t flinch when we have one. I have to give off this sense of calm. They used to say, “This is a drill.” Now they don’t even do that anymore, because they want to make it feel real. The classroom doors lock from the inside, you pull the shades, get everyone in a corner. If a kid is outside the door, begging to be let in, you can’t. I’ve had that happen. Police come through with their weapons, their dogs, and even when they say, “Open up, police,” you can’t, you have to wait for them to open the door. I’m always rattled, but these seventh graders are used to it. That’s the saddest thing.
Is there anything else the school district might want to spend money on at the moment, besides guns?
If the resources go toward firearms, they’re not going to addressing mental health issues, or toward kids figuring out how to solve a problem collaboratively using words — all those programs are out the window so you can buy firearms. There are kids in every single school like this, and if we turn our back on them, it’s a disaster: You’re creating the problem from within.
But say you’re making the teachers the defenders of the school. What happens if someone comes in and starts shooting, and I shoot back and miss, or I hit another student — where’s the culpability? If I kill someone by accident, do I go to jail? They’re expecting someone with 20 to 40 hours of training to be that accurate? That’s not going to happen. Every teacher’s going to be Clint Eastwood? It’s not in their makeup.
How do you think arming teachers would affect their educational work?Every teacher I’ve talked to says if they were asked to take up a firearm to do the job, they would walk away and never go into a classroom again. These are people who have taught for 20 to 25 years. Across the board. I don’t know where and how they expect teachers to stand up to do this, because I’ve met none. They went into the job to enlighten and open minds — we’d become police officers, lockdown agents. I cannot imagine being able to teach without being distracted by a loaded gun in my desk. I could not teach the beauty of literature knowing I had a deadly weapon and would be expected to use it.
It’s hard enough with high school or college, turning a place of enlightenment into this frightening, rigid, militarized environment — what about middle school and elementary? Going through a metal detector when you’re six? Seeing armed guards? Knowing my children, I’m not sure they’d want to go to school. It’s not making them feel safer; it’s making them more anxious. There’s more potential for accidental death. This would be a whole other level. I think you’d see a lot of people pulling their kids out of school, homeschooling. I have kids who are afraid to come into school already.
How have the kids reacted to this whole conversation?
We’re on winter break now, so it’s been happening offstage somewhat. But the shooting in Parkland did hit closer to home; we have family here who lost a cousin, and one of the teachers who died was a counselor at a summer camp in Pennsylvania — some of our kids knew him. It’s less abstract for them now, when usually shootings feel very far away.
I said we should organize a walkout with the students, the parents, the teachers, everybody, and the union said, “We have to get the OK from the superintendent.” I said, “No we don’t!” That’s not what a walkout is. I’m talking about a 17-minute walkout. I want it on the agenda for Monday afternoon’s meeting, first thing after the break. I’m hoping the administration would be behind it, but even if they’re not, it’s going to happen. But we’ll see. I’ll let you know. The kids in Florida have been amazing in standing up to politicians. That’s what you have to hold on to — the wave of change.